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15 officers face melee discipline

Police Chief William J. Bratton calls for four of them to be fired in connection with 2007 May Day debacle.

September 17, 2008|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton announced Tuesday his plans to discipline 11 officers and called for the termination of four others for their roles in a May Day melee last year in which police were accused of using excessive force to clear immigration rights demonstrators and journalists from MacArthur Park.

The penalties mark a significant step in the Los Angeles Police Department's effort to recover from an incident that Bratton called "a phenomenal black eye." LAPD officers were videotaped wielding batons and shooting rubber bullets in an attempt to disperse a largely peaceful crowd. A scathing internal investigation into the incident blamed poor leadership and overly aggressive tactics by officers in the field.

In general, LAPD Deputy Chief Mark Perez said, officers were being punished for excessive use of force, failing to rein in other officers or lying to investigators during the inquiry. Citing personnel privacy rules, he and Bratton declined to name any of the involved officers or publicly elaborate on the officers' transgressions during a presentation Tuesday to the Police Commission, the department's civilian oversight board.

Four of the officers have been notified of Bratton's desire to fire them, Perez told the commission. Under the city's charter, the chief does not have the authority to summarily kick an officer off the force. Instead, Bratton must send the officer before a three-person disciplinary panel known as a Board of Rights. After considering the evidence in a case, the panel can find that the officer should be fired, suffer a less severe punishment or be vindicated. The chief can accept the panel's recommendation or impose a lesser punishment, but he cannot seek to increase the discipline. The four officers facing termination would remain on duty pending the disciplinary panel's decisions, which are probably months away, authorities said.

Among the other 11 officers involved, one has been issued a 10-day suspension, two were suspended for five days and five were suspended for three days. Three officers received official reprimands. The suspended officers can elect to appeal their penalties to the Board of Rights or accept their punishment.

Three of the 15 officers facing discipline will also have their salaries cut to a lower pay grade, and four will be transferred out of the department's elite Metro division.

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa voiced support for Bratton's decision, saying he was "satisfied with the chief's actions."

"I can say with confidence that the process has worked and is working, and today the integrity of the LAPD is not only intact, it's stronger than ever."

Tim Sands, president of the union that represents the department's roughly 9,300 rank-and-file officers, stressed in a statement that the chief's decision "does not mean that the administrative process is over for the officers" and that officers would have a chance at their appeal hearings to more fully explain their actions.

Commissioner Alan Skobin, while acknowledging that things went amiss in the park, also cautioned against passing judgment on officers prematurely. His remarks drew a quick retort from Commissioner John Mack. "We all saw what happened that day," Mack said, "and there were things that happened that shouldn't have happened."

The officers facing punishment represent a small fraction of the scores of police who were involved in the botched attempt to clear the park of marchers and journalists after a small group of agitators threw bottles and other projectiles at officers, police said. Many more officers, who otherwise would have faced possible discipline, could not be identified.

In the immediate aftermath of the debacle, Bratton removed two command-level officers from their posts; one later resigned. Other high-ranking officers, Bratton said Tuesday, did nothing to justify discipline but would receive critical performance evaluations. He dismissed the notion leveled by some critics that the findings represented an effort by the department to scapegoat rank-and-file cops and let command staff off lightly.

"We approached this with the idea of fairness," he said. "You go where the truth takes you."

Although Bratton's decisions might help the department move beyond the May Day incident, much remains unresolved. More than 315 people have filed lawsuits against the city over injuries, damaged property and other claims.

Police Commission members roundly praised LAPD leaders for the investigation and improvements to training.

It was a question, Mack said, "of whether this was going to represent a setback to the bad old days of the LAPD or whether we were going to use this as an opportunity to step forward."

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joel.rubin@latimes.com

Times staff writer Phil Willon contributed to this report.

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